When it comes to the much anticipated rivalries in the world of college basketball, matchups between Virginia and Clemson are hardly considered to be in this category. While the Cavaliers have consistently been in the national conversation under the leadership of Coach Tony Bennett, the same cannot be said for the Tigers in recent years.
Despite this, the bout between the two teams coming up on Saturday will certainly garner attention across the country as a crucial game. For No. 18 Virginia (8-2, 4-0 ACC), the squad has been red-hot as of late, coming in with four straight wins. Ever since their last loss on Dec. 26 against No.1 Gonzaga, the Cavaliers have gone undefeated in ACC play with victories against Notre Dame, Wake Forest and Boston College.
On the other hand, No. 12 Clemson (9-1, 3-1 ACC) is looking to continue to prove that it is a legitimate contender this year. After winning their first five games of the season, the Tigers had a hiccup in their loss against No. 20 Virginia Tech Dec. 15.
Similar to Virginia, Clemson has won four straight since then, although their most recent games were close wins, as the Tigers only defeated Miami and NC State by margins of one and four, respectively.
As both teams are trending towards strong seasons, a ton of momentum will be on the line in Saturday’s clash. The Cavaliers have been itching to knock off a ranked opponent since their 98-75 collapse against Gonzaga while the Tigers can send a major message to the ACC and the country if they are able to down Virginia.
Players to watch
Virginia senior forward Jay Huff and sophomore guard Casey Morsell
Earlier this season, Virginia sports fans saw Bennett experimenting with various player rotations. The Cavaliers shuffled the starting lineup frequently in their first stretch of games and made substitutions more often than usual.
However, this trend has changed recently, as it appears Bennett has consolidated the rotations, putting out the same starting lineup for the past few games. The lineup features Huff, junior guard Kihei Clark, freshman guard Reece Beekman, junior forward Trey Murphy and senior forward Sam Hauser.
While all of the starters have made invaluable contributions and progress, keep an eye on Huff, who dominated both ends of the floor against Boston College and Notre Dame. Against the Eagles, Huff posted a career stat line of 18 points, eight rebounds and five blocks. The longtime Virginia big man recorded a similarly impressive game against the Fighting Irish Wednesday with 18 points, five rebounds and two blocks.
As far as the Cavaliers bench corps, closely watch Morsell, who easily had the best game of his career against Notre Dame. Morsell played an efficient 24 minutes, making six of seven field goal attempts, including a perfect three-for-three from three-point range. After shooting just 17.6 percent from three in his rookie season, Morsell has looked more comfortable with his shot heading into the heart of the ACC season. If he continues his hot streak, the Cavaliers have a solid shot at breaking down a tough Clemson defense.
Clemson senior forward Aamir Simms and sophomore guard Nick Honor
On the other side, the Tigers will need another epic performance from Simms in order to hold off Virginia Saturday. At 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds, Simms may present a matchup nightmare for the Cavaliers. His physicality and ability to grab offensive rebounds — a department where Virginia has struggled this season despite possessing a potential All-ACC center in Huff — will trouble the Cavaliers and offer Clemson numerous second chance opportunities on offense.
Simms has led Clemson in points and rebounds through 10 games, averaging 12.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Simms single-handedly propelled the Tigers to a win against Miami, a game in which he scored 25 points including a game-winner with 19 seconds remaining.
Another player Clemson will be relying on for a strong night is Honor. With 23 three-pointers thus far this season, Honor has led the Tigers from beyond the arc in the most made attempts and has done so efficiently at 44.2 percent.
In addition, Honor is right behind Simms in scoring average with 10.7 points per game and has been effective in distributing the ball, leading Clemson with 25 assists this season.
In games in which Simms has struggled to score, Honor has managed to bail out the Tigers. A prime example of this was Clemon’s Jan. 5 bout against NC State where Simms shot a subpar three-for-11 from the floor. Honor stepped up to the plate with 21 points, including connecting on five of six three-pointers.
Virginia’s keys to the game
In the two games the Cavaliers have lost this season, turnovers haunted the team in a big way.
Not only have turnovers stymied the Cavalier offense at certain points as it leads to wasted possessions, but they also open the door to easy scoring opportunities for opponents. Against Gonzaga, Virginia committed a whopping 15 turnovers throughout the game, and the Bulldogs scored 32 points off of these turnovers, a number larger than their margin of victory for the game.
Similarly, in the Cavaliers’ razor-thin 61-60 loss against San Francisco back in November, it was eight Virginia turnovers that allowed a path for the Dons to escape with a victory.
It will be crucial for the Cavaliers to limit turnovers to the low single-digits in order to capture a win against Clemson. With the Tigers’ ability to finish strong at the rim, handing Clemson easy opportunities in transition will lead to players like Simms and Honor giving the Cavaliers a tough time.
Hold the line defensively
It is no secret that previous Virginia basketball teams have been known for their tremendous defensive capabilities. The packline defense implemented by Bennett constantly suffocates opposing teams and forces long scoring droughts.
Though this year’s squad struggled defensively early on, the team has certainly hit their stride. Through their first 10 games this year they have held every single opponent under 70 points with the exception of Gonzaga and have held five of those 10 teams under 60 points.
As Clemson has scored 70 or more points four times this year and is averaging 68.3 points per game as a team, it is absolutely crucial that Virginia maintains their defensive prowess. Because the Tigers boast a number of tall and rangy players, protecting the paint and preventing dribble-drive penetration should be a Cavalier priority.
Last time around, Virginia held Clemson to just 44 points in a victory during their February 2020 face-off. The Tigers shot a pedestrian 32.7 percent from the floor, including an abysmal six-for-28 from three-point range.
Tip-off at Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson, S.C. is set for 6 p.m. Saturday, and the game will be broadcast live on ESPN.